Leistikow: A surprising Hawkeye admission, and still much at stake
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sometimes to look forward, you first need to look back.
And when Iowa football players re-watched Saturday’s ugly 24-15 loss to Purdue, they saw what was missing on a cold afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.
“We were just kind of flat,” senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said Tuesday.
Practice was good last week, Hawkeye leaders like Josey Jewell attested.
“When it came to Saturday, it just wasn’t there,” Bazata said. “Enthusiasm wasn’t there.”
How does that happen on Senior Day?
That answer may forever remain a mystery. But it’s already become a teaching point for defensive coordinator Phil Parker. He wants to see defensive players happy for and encouraging to the offensive players and special-teamers; and vice versa.
Of course, it would help if one of those three phases would actually play well. From my seat, the Hawkeyes are 0-for-6 the past two Saturdays in losses to Wisconsin and Purdue.
“We know exactly what we did wrong,” said junior center James Daniels, who said his errant snap to Nate Stanley in the third quarter vs. Purdue probably cost Iowa a touchdown. “It’s not ability issues. It’s just us. It’s mistakes. It’s fundamental stuff.”
So, if mental focus and emotions were indeed the biggest problems Saturday against Purdue … and Iowa can regroup and rediscover those things … it has a good chance to finish the regular season with an important win.
That’s because Friday’s 3 p.m. matchup at Nebraska is going to be a lot like the subplot of many bowl games: Who really wants to be there?
Both programs undoubtedly come into the game reeling.
The Hawkeyes are 6-5, right about where the experts thought they would be but coming off their two worst performances of the season.
The Cornhuskers are 4-7, probably officially in the market for a new coach sometime Friday night.
The 10 combined wins between the schools are easily the fewest in this Black Friday rivalry since Nebraska joined the Big Ten Conference in 2011.
Will the Cornhuskers’ talented roster pull together for a “win-one-for-the-Gipper” performance in (almost certainly) Mike Riley’s final game?
“They've got a lot of pride,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, “and we expect nothing but their best shot on Friday.”
For the Hawkeyes, it really is a mental game this Thanksgiving week. With a short preparation, they aren't practicing in full pads. With no school, there's extra time for film study. Come Friday, they need to find a similar passion they had entering inspired home performances against Penn State and Ohio State.
A frustrated portion of the fan base probably doesn’t want to hear this: But the Hawkeyes — favored by 3½ points in the Fox Sports 1-televised game at Memorial Stadium — still have a lot to play for.
A win Friday would give Iowa a 3-1 mark in trophy games in 2017 and a three-game win streak against the Huskers.
“We know that these trophies are important for the program," sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson said. "... We walk through here in the offseason. We don’t want to see empty trophy cases.”
A 7-5 regular season would meet (if not exceed) expectations for what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, especially considering Iowa has played the third-toughest schedule in the nation, according to Jeff Sagarin’s highly regarded metrics.
A win, and the Hawkeyes finish third in the Big Ten West — ahead of where most experts put them in the preseason.
An eight-win season is within reach, which would also mean the program’s first bowl victory since 2010. That 27-24 win over Missouri in the Insight Bowl, back when Ricky Stanzi was the quarterback, was the last time the Hawkeyes' final game was a victory.
“My mindset is to win the last two games,” senior running back Akrum Wadley said. “We didn’t come out with the season we wanted to have. It’s all about finishing now. Why not go (all) out the last two games? You’ve got nothing to lose.”
Iowa has won two straight in Memorial Stadium, by scores of 38-17 in 2013 and 28-20 in 2015.
Ferentz is 2-0 vs. Riley, including last year's 40-10 rout at Kinnick.
Nebraska has by far the worst defense in the Big Ten, one that has given up a combined 110 points the past two weeks.
The Hawkeyes can do this.
But first, they need to show up.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the annual Black Friday matchup with Iowa has produced a 3-3 series split in six meetings. But this one has, by far, the fewest combined wins for each program entering the game. A look:
2011: 15 wins (Nebraska 8, Iowa 7)
2012: 14 wins (Nebraska 10, Iowa 4)
2013: 15 wins (Nebraska 8, Iowa 7)
2014: 15 wins (Nebraska 8, Iowa 7)
2015: 16 wins (Nebraska 5, Iowa 11)
2016: 16 wins (Nebraska 9, Iowa 7)
2017: 10 wins (Nebraska 4, Iowa 6)